Note: Throughout July, I’ll be re-reading and reviewing books by Patricia McKillip. While I don’t think there are any huge spoilers below, I can’t swear that there are none, so tread with caution if that’s something you’re concerned about.
The Riddle-Master of Hed is the first volume in a trilogy commonly known as the Riddle-Master books or Riddle of Stars. It was first published in 1976, as the epic fantasy genre was exploding and beginning to define itself. (Lord of the Rings had become popular in the late 1960s, The Chronicles of Prydain were published from 1964-1968, and The Sword of Shannara would be published in 1977.) The Riddle-Master of Hed is certainly McKillip’s entry in the subgenre, and her response to it. I suspect that she was writing largely in response to Tolkien, though I see some similarities to Alexander’s Prydain books as well.
In terms of my personal reading history, I read the trilogy for the first time in 2008, and have re-read it several times since then. I have fond associations with it, but hadn’t re-read any of the books in at least four years.
I love the opening of this book, in memory and in fact. McKillip’s word picture of Hed, of Morgon, Eliard, and Tristan, and of their comfortable, familial world is so vivid and enchanting that although events quickly move us away from it, its function as Morgon’s anchor throughout the story works very well for me. It gives a sense of family and community that is warm, even though it’s full of bickering and disagreements.
It’s worth noting that, as with Alphabet of Thorn, Riddle-Master is set against a time of change. Of course in terms of the wider scope of the world, this is true. But it’s also the case for Hed and for Morgon’s family: their parents have died recently and their father’s land-rule passed to Morgon. This loss, which happens before the book begins, actually drives much of rest of the story, as does Morgon’s riddle-match with Peven and the fact that he won Peven’s crown from him. These two off-stage actions echo through the story, but it only begins when Deth, the High One’s harpist, comes to Hed and meets Morgon for the first time.
The land-rule is one of the more interesting aspects of McKillip’s world in the Riddle-Master books. She is often concerned with the passage of inheritance and power from one ruler to another, but the idea of the land-rule, the sense of the land itself and responsibility for it is neat. I think other writers have since played with the idea although just at this moment I’m unable to come up with any specific examples.
At any rate, when Deth comes, the plot swings into motion. Morgon is going to An, so he can see Raederle, whose hand he accidentally won when he won Peven’s crown. But he was born with three stars on his forehead and with that comes destiny. So far, so standard; Morgon’s promise to Eliard that he’ll come back to Hed is touching, but as the story gets going, it seems familiar. They’re going on a quest! Things will happen! Swords will be drawn!
And then Morgon refuses to take up the quest. For almost half the book, he insists that he’s going home to Hed, that he has a choice that has nothing to do with the stars on his face, nothing to do with his parents’ deaths, nothing to do with Peven’s crown. Since there are two more books, this seems unlikely. And yet, it takes ages for Morgon to act rather than react.
My reaction to this is fairly mixed. I can’t decide whether it’s excellent writing–it is, after all, closer to the way most people make big decisions than many epics show–or whether it should have been edited down because GOOD GRIEF. The whole story seems rather opaque; there’s a point to it, but the reactions of the characters seem contradictory and frustrating, and the themes take awhile to develop. There’s an odd shapelessness to the threat, as well.
When the themes do develop, they’re quite interesting. Like Tolkien, McKillip is intentionally and explicitly writing about the end of an age. But who or what is ending remains unclear. Her concern with names and true natures being hidden is already apparent. Some of the characters are deliberate hiding who they are, others don’t even know themselves. I also found it nice that while Morgon is clearly the Chosen One, he needs others and relies on their help and friendship, as well as his sense of Hed and his family.
But the most major theme of this book is the weight of destiny, this thing that Morgon has in no way chosen but which will shape his life. He says it perhaps most clearly to Lyra in Herun: “Because it’s not death I’m afraid of–it’s losing everything I love for a name and a sword and a destiny I did not choose and will not accept.” The real tension of the book lies in his refusal to accept and the reader’s knowledge that he will in some way be forced to.
As I was reading this time, I found myself frustrated by this volume, by Morgon and his stubbornness. Having finished the trilogy and considering it again, I find myself still frustrated, but this time by the fact that this is the set up for the payoff which comes two books later. The reasons for the Tour of The Kingdoms make so much more sense in the context of Morgon’s eventual fate. But on its own, I didn’t enjoy this book nearly as much as I expected to, mostly because of the apparent aimlessness of the story and Morgon’s stubborn passiveness.
Book source: personal library
Book information: 1976, Atheneum; adult fantasy